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The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2021 [FEATURE]

With 2021 now receding in the rear view mirror, we look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the arena of drug policy around the world.

1. The International Criminal Court Eyes Philippines Drug War Killings

Protestors denounce Duterte's bloody drug war. (hrw.org)
Rodrigo Duterte's term as Filipino president may be coming to an end, but his bloody legacy of drug war murders is going to haunt him. For us, last year actually begins in December 2020, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced its preliminary examination of the Filipino drug war showed evidence of crimes against humanity, clearing the path toward a formal investigation into what are estimated to be more than 30,000 killings. At that point, the ICC had to determine whether the Philippine justice system has is responding to the killings in a legitimate way. If the Philippines couldn't or wouldn't hold perpetrators accountable, the court could take the case.

ICC attention was only one piece of the mounting international pressure over the Duterte killings. For example, in February, US Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), top Democrat on the East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called for the full exoneration and release of Philippines drug war critic Senator Leila De Lima, who had then been detained on bogus, politically-motivated charges for four years. Now, it's been nearly five years, and she is still behind bars.

In May, a blustering Duterte vowed he would not open up police records about the killings and warned drug dealers that: "If I am there, I will really kill you. I don't care if there's TV around. I will really kill you."

In June, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor concluded its preliminary investigation and announced there was sufficient evidence to request authorization to proceed with an official investigation, which prompted the Duterte administration to say it would not cooperate with the ICC investigation.

In August, Duterte again resorted to bluster, this time taunting the ICC during his last State of the Nation address and daring the court to record his threats against those who would "destroy" the country, saying: "I never denied -- and the ICC can record it -- those who destroy my country, I will kill you. And those who destroy the young people of my country, I will kill you, because I love my country."

But while Duterte blustered, his Justice Department was attempting to blunt the ICC investigation by announcing it had finished a review of 52 drug war killing cases. It was a weak effort though: The cases represented only a tiny fraction of the more than 6,000 killings for which the Philippines National Police took responsibility. And it wasn't enough to stop the ICC, which announced in September that it would open an official investigation into the killings, setting the stage for summonses and possible arrests warrants if requested by Prosecutor Karim Khan.

In October, once again moving to blunt the investigation, the Justice Department announced that 154 police could be liable for drug war misconduct and then announced it would review thousands of drug war killings. The government also invoked a provision of the ICC's Rome Treaty to suspend the investigation while its request to defer it got considered. The following month, the ICC temporarily did suspend its official investigation, as per the treaty. "The prosecution has temporarily suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the deferral request," ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan wrote.

The year ended with human rights groups urging the ICC to get back to investigating Duterte: "We ask the ICC not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration," said the National Union of People's Lawyers, which represents some victims' families. The national justice system is "extremely slow and unavailing to the majority of poor and unrepresented victims", the statement said. The Duterte government's claim that existing legal mechanisms could bring justice to Duterte's victims was "absurd," said Human Rights Watch. "Let's hope the ICC sees through the ruse that it is," said Brad Adam, HRW Asia director.

2. Afghanistan's Government Falls, Opium Remains

Afghanistan has been the world's largest producer of opium since the 1990s, except for one year when the Taliban banned it the first time they held power. Opium never went away during the nearly two-decade long occupation by the US and NATO forces, and despite Taliban declarations to the contrary, it does not look like the trade is going anywhere.

When the Taliban completed their conquest of the country by seizing Kabul in August, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that their new government would not let Afghanistan become a full-fledged narco-state: "We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community that we will not have any narcotics produced," Mujahid said. "From now on, nobody's going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."

By October, the price of opium was rising in local markets, having tripled since the Taliban took power as buyers anticipated an opium shortage because of the possible ban, but the ban has yet to materialize.

And a UN Office on Drugs and Crime report that same month made it clear why the ban is unlikely to materialize. In a country now in economic crisis because the foreign spending that propped up the previous regime has vanished, UNODC reported that the spring opium crop had generated between $1.8 and $2.7 billion for the Afghan economy, also noting that "much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan."

The 2021 crop was some 6,800 tons, up 8% over 2020. Given the devastation of the Afghan economy and the unlikelihood that the Taliban will move against a crop that supports hundreds of thousands of Afghan families, it's entirely possible that the crop next spring will be even larger. As one farmer told the UNODC, "There is no work, all the families are in debt, and everyone's hope is opium."

3, Mexican Drug War Violence Just Keeps Going

Sixteen years after then-President Felipe Calderon called out the military to combat rising violence, Mexico's drug prohibition-related violence continued unabated in 2021, with more than 25,000 killed by the end of November.

Amidst the quotidian violence, some notable incidents stand out: in March, an attack on a police convoy in Mexico state left 13 officers dead; in May, presumed cartel gunmen ambushed Joel Ernesto Soto, director of the Sinaloa State Police, on Monday, killing him on the outskirts of Culiacan, the state capital; in June, gunmen in SUVs representing warring factions of the Gulf Cartel ranged across the border town of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande River from McAllen, Texas, leaving a toll of at least 14 and as many as 18 dead; in August, masked men claiming to represent the Jalisco New Generation Cartel released a video where they threaten to kill Milenio TV anchor Azucena Uresti over what they called "unfair" coverage. And on and on.

The west central state of Michoacan was particularly plagued by cartel violence in 2021, beginning with an April massacre by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) of rival gang members in the municipality of Aguililla. In May, warring cartels blocked highways and burned vehiclesin Aguililla and neighboring municipalities.

As violent clashes and blockades continued through the year, residents of those municipalities took to the streets in September took to the streets in Septemberto excoriate the military for staying in its barracks and demand military intervention to fight the cartels. It didn't work. That same month, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel beheaded five men manning a checkpoint on the edge of Tepalcatepec designed to keep the drug gangs out. And in November, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel struck again, killing five men and six boys near the town of Tarecuato in the north of the state near the border with the state of Jalisco as it pursued its war with local criminal gangs.

When it comes to US-Mexico cooperation in the war on drugs, 2021 was not a good year. It began with a huge diplomatic spat around the DEA's arrest in late 2020 of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was subsequently released after loud protests from Mexico, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who personally accusing the DEA of making up the case against Cienfuegos. The US retorted with the Justice Department sharply rebuking Mexico for releasing a massive trove of evidence in the aborted drug trafficking case against Cienfuegos. Mexico then countered with a call for a DEA internal probe of the "fabricated" case.

Amidst the controversy, US investigations into the cartels were paralyzed as a law enacted in December requiring US officials to report their law enforcement contacts in the country to Mexican officials, whom they view as largely corrupt, went into effect. In May, US and Mexican officials told Reuters the fight against Mexican drug trafficker had "ground to a halt"because of strained relations between the two counties.

But in October, there was a glimmer of hope for fans of continued anti-drug coordination between the two countries. Leading Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Attorney General Merrick Garland met with their Mexican counterparts to try to create a new framework for cooperation on drugs, crime, and border issues. The high-profile meeting came after months of quiet talks to rebuild relations.

4. Mexico Didn't Get Marijuana Legalization Done (Again)

Two years after the Mexican Supreme Court found marijuana prohibition unconstitutional and ordered the government to legalize it, the Senate finally passed a legalization bill in late 2020. The measure appeared to have momentum on its side, especially after the Chamber of Deputies approved it in March. Under the bill, people 18 and up would be able to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants (although one controversial change in the Chamber of Deputies would require home growers to register with the state). The bill also created a system of taxed and regulated legal marijuana commerce.

The momentum appeared to hold through April, when the bill won two Senate committee votes in as many days but then hit a last-minute snag when it ran into opposition from unhappy with the revised version of the bill. With that, the bill was dead in the water until the congress returned to work in September.

Progress remained slow when lawmakers returned. It was only in November that a draft legalization bill was being circulated among senators, and while there were hints that a vote could happen in December, it didn't. Maybe in 2022.

5. Bangladesh Drug War Killings Draw Pushback

In May, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved an anti-drugs campaign aimed at methamphetamines, and by mid-month police had killed 86 people and arrested 7,000. About the killings, police claimed they were only defending themselves in confrontations with drug traffickers, but family members and activists claimed they were executions. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) also said the anti-drug campaign was part of an effort to target and intimidate it.

By the end of May, the toll had risen to 115, with more signs of extrajudicial killings and complaints from the BNP that some party workers had been killed during the campaign despite no connection to the drug trade. Authorities continued to claim that dead dealers had died in crossfire or in gunfights with police, but more families complained that their relatives had been arrested and then killed in custody. Most of the raids were carried out by the RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), a controversial force that human rights groups have repeatedly accused of abuses, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

By June, the United Nations was responding, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein saying the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers must be "immediately halted" and the perpetrators brought to justice. "Every person has the right to life and they do not lose their human rights because they sell drugs," he added. At that time, the toll stood at 130 dead and 13,000 arrested.

After that, the campaign quieted down, but there is no sign of any Bangladeshi investigations into the killings and human rights abuses in in the late spring. The United States, however, was paying attention, and in December, imposed sanctions on the RAB for human rights abuses, abductions, and hundreds of extrajudicial killings going back to 2018, targeting not only drug dealers, but also opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists.

6. Pushing the Boundaries in Canada

Canadian cities, provinces, and activists pressed the Liberal federal government on drug reform issues throughout the year, with important struggles being waged around drug decriminalization and the vanguard issue of a safe drug supply, as well as a noteworthy milestone reached in opioid maintenance therapy.

The Liberals started the year off by introducing a sweeping criminal justice reform billthat would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But critics who demanded deeper reforms scoffed that it was too little, too late.

In April, British Columbia showed what deeper reforms might look like when it formally requested permission from the federal government for provincial drug decriminalization. That same month, saying the Liberal's reform bill didn't go far enough, the New Democratic Party's health critic, MP Don Davies filed a federal drug decriminalization bill.

VANDU is the vanguard.
The city of Vancouver also sought an exemption from federal drug laws to enact decriminalization.The city recommended the decriminalization of one gram or 10 rocks for crack cocaine, 1.5 grams for amphetamines, two grams for opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, and three grams for cocaine. That did not sit well with the city's vanguard drug user activists, who harshly criticized the possession limits. At that point, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) announced that it is withdrawing from talks with the city, and it and other drug policy advocates complained that drug users were largely excluded from the decriminalization process and that police have too large a role.

The push for decriminalization continued throughout the year. In October, nearly 70 organizations across the country, including the HIV Legal Network, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and the National Association of Women and the Law, urged Prime Minister Trudeau to decriminalize drug possession. And in November, Toronto moved toward decriminalizationas the city's top health officer, Dr. Eilenn de Villa, recommended that the board of health approve a request to the federal government to exempt city residents from criminal charges for small-time drug possession.

But even though decriminalization is in the Liberals' platform, the party under Justin Trudeau is not ready to go there yet. After calling elections in August, necessitating a restart on January criminal justice reform bill, and despite the rising clamor for decriminalization, the Liberal government refiled the bill anyway.

In the summer, an even more direct challenge to drug prohibition was underway as British Columbia moved toward providing a "safe supply" of illicit drugs to street users.A provincial policy directive in British Columbia requires all local health authorities to develop programs to provide pharmaceutical quality opioids and stimulants to street drug users in a bid to reduce overdose deaths.

A Vancouver elected official and local activists got in on the action, too, when Councilwoman Jean Swanson and a pair of drug user advocacy groups, Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) handed out free cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to drug users in the Downtown Eastside in a bid to dramatize the need for a safe drug supply. They also wanted to "raise awareness of the deeply flawed aspects of the Vancouver Model of decriminalization, including disproportionate influence of the Vancouver Police Department, unreasonably low drug thresholds, and lack of provisions for safe supply."

The following month, they were at it again, handing out a "safe supply" of drugs to mark International Overdose Awareness Dayto show the "life-saving potential of a community-led response to the crisis of prohibition in Canada" as an alternative to Vancouver's proposed model of decriminalization. And in September, DULF and VANDU formally asked the federal government to allow buyers' clubs for hard drugs. They requested a formal exemption from federal criminal drug laws so that no one is prosecuted for operating a "compassion club" to distribute those drugs.

And in October, the province of Alberta expressed interest in a safe drug supply. The prairie province's United Conservative government proposed that a committee of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) look into the pluses and minuses of offering pharmaceutical versions of opioids and other addictive substances to people dependent on them.

Meanwhile, magic mushroom shops were sprouting in Vancouver. A handful of shops selling magic mushrooms and other psychedelic substances are operating in in the city even though selling magic mushrooms remains illegal in Canada. One such shop, the Coca Leaf Café & Mushroom Dispensary on East Hastings Street, is owned by long-time drug activist Dana Larsen. "We're sitting in a place that is unique in the world. There's nowhere else where you can get the same range of substances and things that we do right here," Larsen said.

And last but not least, in September, a Vancouver clinic began providing take-home prescription heroin,a North American first. The program began as an emergency response to the COVID epidemic, when the provincial health authority allowed clinic staff to deliver syringes filled with heroin to patients so they could stay isolated for 10 to 14 days, but now the patients can take it home themselves.

7. Malta Becomes First European Union County to Legalize Marijuana -- Germany, Luxembourg Next?

The Maltese parliament approved a bill legalizing marijuanaon December 14, and President George Vella signed it into law four days later, making the country the first member state of the European Union to do so. The law allows citizens 18 and over to possess up to seven grams of marijuana and cultivate up to four plants at home, harvesting up to 50 grams from them. The law does not envision commercial sales but allows nonprofit cooperatives to produce marijuana to be sold to members, with an upper limit on membership per coop of 500.

Either Germany or Luxembourg could be next. In October, the government of Luxembourg unveiled its marijuana legalization proposal, which would allow people 18 and over to grow up to four plants and possess up to three grams in public. Like Malta, the Luxembourg law does not envision commercial sales, but people would be allowed to buy and trade marijuana seeds for their home gardens. The proposal still has to be approved by parliament.

And in November, the three parties who have formed Germany's new governing coalition -- the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats -- agreed to legalize marijuana and its sale. The coalition is prepared to "introduce the regulated sale of cannabis to adults for consumption purposes in licensed stores," according to the coalition's health group's findings paper. It is not clear, however, whether home cultivation will be allowed.

8. Italy's Pending Referendum on Marijuana and Plant Psychedelics

Italy is on the cusp of a bold drug reform move. A number of pro-reform activist groups and political parties including the Radicals launched a ballot campaignin for a referendum to legalize the cultivation of marijuana and other psychoactive plants and fungi, such as psilocybin mushrooms. They faced several challenges: First, they had to obtain half a million valid voter signatures by month's end and have the signatures validated by the Supreme Court of Cassation, then the Constitutional Court would have to rule that the measure is in line with the constitution, and only then, President Sergio Mattarella would set the date for the referendum, which would ask whether that portion of the country's drug law criminalizing the cultivation of marijuana and psychoactive plants should be stricken.

In October, activists met their first challenge, turning in some 630,000 raw signatures. They were able to meet their signature-gathering goals so quickly because a pandemic-related policy change allowed them to collect signatures online instead of only in person.

Now, after having staved off an attempt by rightist parties to block it, the fate of the referendum is before the courts. If it wins final approval from the Constitutional Court, which will determine whether it conflicts with the constitution, international treaties, or the country's fiscal system, voters could go to the polls on the issue sometime between April 15 and June 15.

There's tons of cocaine around these days. (Pixabay)
9. Cocaine Production Has Doubled in the Course of a Decade

In June, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its annual estimate of coca cultivation and potential cocaine production in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, the three perennial coca and cocaine producing nations. What is at first glance most striking in the current report is that for the first time, one nation -- Colombia -- produced more than 1,000 metric tons of cocaine.

But a closer reading of the report, which details coca cultivation and cocaine production going back to 2010, produces an even more striking finding: Over the decade that the report covers, the total amount of potential cocaine production in the three countries has more than doubled, from 914 tons in 2010 to a whopping 2,132 tons in 2020. In other words, Colombia alone produced more cocaine in 2020 than the whole region did a decade earlier.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does its own annual estimates of global potential cocaine production, and while they differ from those of the United Status, they outline the same massive expansion of cocaine. According to UNODC numbers compiled at Statista, beginning in 2004, 1,000 tons or more (slightly more in most years) was produced every year except 2012, 2013, and 2014, when it dipped down into the 900s. That series, which ended in 2019, has cocaine production topping out at 1,976 tons in 2017.

In the most recent edition of the UNODC's World Drug Report, that organization also reported that cocaine production had doubled, but put the period of doubling from 2014 to 2019, when it registered 1,784 tons.

Take your pick of the numbers. Either way, there is a lot more cocaine being produced these days than just a decade ago, tons more of it.

10. World Health Organization Declines Move Toward Labeling Kratom a Controlled Substance

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommended in November that kratom not be subjected to a "critical review," which could have been a first step toward labeling it a controlled substance subject to international and national controls. The ECDD did a "pre-review" of kratom at its October meeting and found there was inadequate evidence to recommend a critical review.

WHO had begun the "pre-review" based in part on a "country-level report indicating the potential for abuse, dependence and harm to public health from" the chemical compounds in kratom. But it found concerns about fatalities associated with kratom to be overstated: "Kratom can produce serious toxicity in people who use high doses, but the number of cases is probably low as a proportion of the total number of people who use kratom," WHO stated in the document. "Although mitragynine [the active alkaloid in kratom] has been analytically confirmed in a number of deaths, almost all involve use of other substances, so the degree to which kratom use has been a contributory factor to fatalities is unclear."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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